Eddi Reader began her career with punk band Gang Of Four, leaving after their next tour of the US. After spending the next few years as a session vocalist, in 1984 she began to collaborate with guitarist Mark E. Levin. The two formed Fairport Convention with the help of acoustic bass (guitaron) player Simon Edwards and drummer Roy Dodds, and released an album, The First Of A Million Kisses (1988). After a No. 1 single in the shape of 'Perfect', a second album was planned but the band soon folded. Reader returned to Scotland to have her first child and try her hand at acting, before signing to RCA Records and releasing her solo debut, Mirmama (1992).
'The Right Place' opens the album gracefully, appropriately easing you into Reader's assuredly relaxed folk. Her decidedly Glaswegian voice fits serenely into the mix against both the violins and acoustic guitar. The lyrics are also part of a greater soundscape, like so many female vocalists. The occassional lines slip out and make a stand - Five or ten lifetimes ago/ They lived a girl that you don't know/ She walked about and answered to my name - but in general Reader focuses on the music. In this instance, this pays off well and you end up with a fine example of easy-listening folk, complete with great doubletracked harmonies.
'Patience Of Angels' begans like a waltz overlaid with a catchy accordion part, and is more upbeat and attention-seeking. This has a Corrs-ish feel to it, which would normally do for even the best artists. But here the absence of meaning doesn't matter because Reader's delivery is so enchanting. The refrain is very well put together, and this feels like a complete product in the way that 'The Right Place' seemed a little loose. 'Dear John' scales things back to just Eddi and a guitar, creating a slightly haunting sound which would have been amplified more given some induced echo. Written about a break-up, this doesn't feel overdone or clichéd for, despite the addition of a string section halfway in, this is cancelled out by the accordian part at the end, creating a quaint little gem.
Things soon begin to go awry, I'm afraid. 'Scarecrow' opens with a tinny guitar riff which digs deep into soul and ties your brain in knots. It then meanders along for much too long, littered with jerky guitar parts and Reader's unwanted attempts at falsetto. She also provides an irritating, Beach Boys-style harmony that is deeply annoying. 'East Of Us' opens with her descending a scale and producing a vacuous noise of the kind that Mariah Carey is a certified professor of. All the accordian parts in the whole world can't salvage this humdrum effort. Thinking about it, neither could Ms. Carey.
Thankfully, before the temptation to switch off becomes too great, we come into 'Joke (I'm Laughing)'. This is a brighter number which despite its lyrics - which are both quirky and jerky - has some very good piano on it which justifies its place on the album. Indeed, some of the lyrics are quite intelligent, for instance the opening of the second verse: D'you hear the one about/ The one who fell from space/ One minute in the stars/ The next minute lyin' on their face. Again, Reader does come across a bit too much like one of the Corrs to achieve complete credibility, but this is easily the most jovial track on the album.
No sooner have I said that, when it is trumped by 'The Exception'. This song about fame and the grandiosity which it brings is very folky in that its lyrics are both earthy and have a wry, satirical bite. Lines like No pain, no gain, that's what they say/ And it's hard to disagree/ But I thought somehow they weren't including me slot perfectly into place, sticking to the subject matter without trying to be ostentious or over-metaphorical like many folk rockers do.
But if it's more the loving crooner that you crave, then you need 'Red Face Big Sky'. Despite its decidedly ill-fitting title, this features glorious harmonies which are almost whispered or breathed to instantly soothe you. These in turn provide the perfect foil to Reader's vocal workout. Throw in some sensitive drumming, emotive piano and subtle bass and you have a winner.
'Howling In Ojai' is the last track to truly fall short (in more ways than one), considering the expectations set by the previous three tracks. Not only is it too brief at only 1:29, but it's also another Carey-style, self-indulgent workout which could pass off as awful world music. Instead, to the more discerning listener, this is a middle-aged Scottish lady wailing stupefying to some embarrassing guitar. Thankfully, this is quickly over, and I am reminded of the immortal words of The Muppets: "Just when you think the show is terrible, something wonderful happens." "What's that?" "It ends."
'While I Watch You Sleeping' has a lead over the other tracks because it provides a hook on the guitar. Reader crafts a delightful riff which is well-suited both to her yearning vocals and the brushes lingering in the background. This is a great 'darkness' song - i.e. one that will influence you a lot more if you listen to it in the dark. Reader here has achieved a great balance of vocal restraint and instrumental prowess. Without letting either dominate, she creates the most underrated track on the album.
'Wonderful Lie' switches to exotic means of percussion as an alternative way to get you interested. And while it may not have been wise to group these with 1980s-style keyboards, you do shuffle yourself slowly in your chair and take notice. There are three-part harmonies here that just (and I mean just) avoid being garish, and the electric guitar and drums are a little more imposing than before - which makes a nice change.
'Siren' is the closer, and it's a strange one. Not strange as the choice for the closer, oh no. The strange side of this is the song itself, which can't make up its mind over whether it's an acoustic Roxy Music ballad or a cabaret-esque passion song with a jazz fusion feel to it. The vocal parts are also a little unusual for Reader, whose delivery can become overly tired when her albums are overplayed. It's an intriguing piece, the difficult child of the album - it's hard to get used to, but it's an intelligent and experimental adventure once you do.
Depending on your view, it's either much easier or much harder to knock an album with the kind of plaudits which Eddi Reader has received. Critically speaking, it's her most consistently top-rated work, and even to the casual fan it has a feeling of completeness which many of her later albums did not (the follow-up, for instance, Candyfloss And Medicine (1996), is disastrously fractious). And to a extent the critics got it right. This has, to borrow someone else's phrase, "a certain je ne sais quoi that will have you going around hugging all your friends after the album's over."¹ Like all good Reader albums, this will send you into a state of complete relaxation and serenity. You won't be bored by it, you'll just want to sink into a comfy chair and forget about your worries. And in this world of speed and hyperactivity, any album that can make you want to sit still and relax is more than worthy of a place in the chart.
¹ Rick Anderson, 'Eddi Reader', http://www.allmusicguide.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:difixqehldke. Accessed on August 5 2007.
3.75 out of 5